Emphasis on beer glassware almost seems passé these days. If a wide array of glasses was once the hallmark of storied beer traditions and the calling card of respectable beer bars and breweries, now the focus has shifted to pushing packaged beer—primarily the 16-ounce can—and a streamlined glass offering. When that offering expands, it’s often to include vase-like vessels filled to the boss-pour brim on social media.
What happened? Where did all the glassware go?
Okay, perhaps the present situation isn’t as dire as it appears. Before we consider it, let’s take a step back for some context.
Drinkware: Utility and Aesthetic
After a long evolution that would see beer enjoyed from the likes of terra-cotta and clay vessels, then tankards crafted from leather and wood and pewter steins—complete with lids to keep the flies at bay during the bubonic plague—glassware truly arrived in the 19th century. Its newfound affordability, brought on by the Industrial Revolution, and beguiling transparency—revealing new-fashioned pale brews with brilliant clarity—contributed to its acclaim. What began as the mere means to consume beer from pots, barrels, and tanks became a stylized way to further enjoy a beer’s flavor nuance—not to mention a way to market that beer to the drinker.
Beer glassware proliferated in the 20th century, with myriad shapes, sizes, and branding opportunities engaged to promote the beers of the world. Most famously, Belgian brewers embraced the marketing potential and elevated drinking experiences afforded by bespoke glassware. They weren’t the only ones. Even American industrial lager brewers were hip to these prospects; Budweiser loved to show off the alluring contrast of golden lager and frothy head in countless illustrated ads featuring the footed pilsner glass.
By the time I discovered the pleasures of craft beer, industrial lager producers had long since jettisoned marketing campaigns aimed at promoting sophistication. Independent American brewers sought inspiration from classic European brewing traditions, which continued to produce beers worthy of investigation and to celebrate the investigation itself. Like so many of us, I looked beyond fizzy yellow malternatives chugged from bottles or cans to discover an abundance of remarkable ales and lagers made even more remarkable by the vessels in which they were served.
Conveyances to Serve the Senses
By pouring the beer into a glass, we gain full sensory access. The sound of the beer rushing into the glass, the initial sight of foam building on the brew—these prepare us for the flavor experience on deck. Once the pour is complete, we watch scores of bubbles run flavor compounds up to the foamy net, where they patiently wait. As we nose the beer in the glass, and foam slowly subsides, we’re treated to a charged aromatic experience. When we sip, we parse the various nuances of taste and texture, the latter’s complexity encouraged by the interplay of well-developed foam and well-made beer. The proper temperature, produced in storage but suitably maintained in glass service, also ensures that aromas, tastes, and textures are best conveyed.
Particular glasses have always suited specific styles. Crisp, dry brews such as pilsners and Kölsch call for tall, narrow glasses—think flutes, pilsner glasses, and stanges—that can maintain the effervescence so important to the enjoyment of drinking these beers. This shape keeps the hand from warming the brew and retains subtle aromatics throughout. Even better, it delivers long, full sips of cold, spritzy beer to the palate and throat with a bright, brisk quality that keeps you wanting more.
For maltier, fuller-bodied lagers with a bit more strength, I turn to glasses with a wider mouth. I tend to pour helles, märzen, dunkel, tmavý, kellerbier, and other richer lagers in steins, krugs, and Tübingers to let the creamier foam and rounder malt rush over the palate. These handled glasses keep the hand from warming the beer; the stein, meanwhile, is downright insulated, so big gulps of cool lager continue to deliver.
The becher glass—with its ample size, wider mouth and slightly tapered rim—works well for the richer lagers mentioned above and is a wonderful option for all manner of pale ales, IPAs, and mid-strength dark brews such as porters and stouts. This glass allows for a bit more aromatic investigation while maintaining foam and drinkability. The classic nonic pint can work for these styles and for traditional British offerings such as mild and bitter, particularly when served from cask; the sturdy, expansive glass allows for foam to settle and hold before fully conveying the pleasures of a slightly chilled, smooth, and mellow brew to the drinker.
For beers with even more pronounced aromatic intensity, I like to source glasses with curves—something that flares and tapers to the rim. Belgian-style blond ales, saisons, and witbiers that combine extreme drinkability with engrossing aromatics are best consumed from tulip glasses. Stronger, richer Belgian styles, such as dubbel, tripel, and grand cru, deserve a chalice since the wider mouth of this glass better carries the malt flavor in sips while still allowing for ample nosing. I look to the snifter, round and tapered at the mouth, for the most robust brews, whether imperial stout, barleywine, or double or triple IPA. In all three cases, the stem or foot of the glass encourages swirling, the method by which we further energize the release of those aromatic volatiles.
Engaging Today’s Drinker
Showcasing the full spectrum of beer styles through a large collection of glassware like this helped convert a generation of craft-beer drinkers. The aesthetics, authenticity, narrative, and flavor impact of the beer glass elevated the experience of beer drinking. As craft continued to catch on, finding its way beyond specialist bars and brewpubs to corner bars and grocery stores, some instruments of the initial advancement were left behind. The rise of the brewery taproom and sale of 16-ounce cans, line culture, and beer trading shifted the focus further from beer service. With that shift, the interest in glassware appeared to dramatically wane.
However, if we know anything about craft-beer drinkers, we know that they’re always up for something new. Though the initial interest in traditional Belgian- and British-beer styles—along with associated glassware and service techniques—has subsided over the years, the current fervor for crisp and classic lager and ale varieties has shifted the focus once again.
In certain places these days, we just don’t see guests crushing Kölsch-style beer. We see servers making the rounds holding multiple 20-centiliter stanges of cold-fermented golden ale in circular trays, dropping fresh glasses to each guest until they cover their glass with a coaster to say, “No more.” It’s traditional Kölsch service, as fun as it is fitting for the brew: when Kölsch is consumed in a series of small, fresh servings, the beer remains properly temped and foamed for each and every sip.
Side-pull faucets and Tübinger mugs have become de rigueur. Across the country, even the haziest IPA brewers are installing these setups to better showcase the lagers they are increasingly brewing. Staff are learning to carefully build that wet, mousse-like head first, followed by filling the glass with beer second, all the while dipping the tap and controlling the dispense just so. That perfect pour of lager in the dimpled mug, head densely packed above the golden liquid, is a thing of beauty. It also happens to deliver generous aromas accompanied by a creamy, soft texture that elegantly integrates foam and beer. (Incidentally, it also looks great on your Instagram page.)
The attention to glassware is back—if it ever really went away. As long as the beer we brew can continue to deliver on the promise of a balanced passion for flavor and fun, elevated service will remain. Let’s raise a glass of beer, topped by a rocky head of over-the-rim foam, take a long sip, and dream of where our commitment to excellence can take us next.